Difficult behaviour is something that anyone working in any kind of role where they interact with customers will experience, and libraries are no exception (I shall say now that I use the phrase “customer service” when referring to libraries – I know some don’t agree with the use of the word “customer” but, in my sector at least, our users are our customers). I’ve experienced argumentative, upset and aggressive users in pretty much every library job I’ve had. I’ve been thinking about this this week for a couple of reasons: over the past couple of weeks I’ve dealt with a few argumentative to mildly aggressive users – it’s a somewhat fraught time of year for students, with coursework and undergraduate dissertation deadlines looming – and on Thursday I attended a course about dealing with aggressive behaviour. I feel fairly confident about dealing with such behaviour, and my main concern is ensuring that I continue to deliver good customer service even when I have to say or do something that the user doesn’t like or agree with. I think that the balance between being firm, and being abrupt, can be a delicate one, and that it’s important we don’t let our behaviour be influenced by the aggression or emotion that we’re facing. I hoped that Thursday’s course would help me to ensure that I continue to get this right.
Although I’d already covered a lot of the material in previous training, the course was indeed helpful. It was useful to share and discuss experiences with members of staff from other areas of the university, and the trainer gave some really good advice. The tip that I am definitely going to remember in future is to try to ensure that you don’t cast the user as unreasonable: for example, rather than go straight in with “you can’t do that here”, start with “I’m sorry, you might not have seen the sign, but you can’t do that here” (even if the sign is massive and obvious!). I’m going to use this one if I have to speak to students about noise levels in quiet areas, or phone calls in the library. And of course, we presume that the user is just ignoring the rule or being thoughtless; perhaps they genuinely haven’t realised that the library is any different to a shop or other public space where they could use their phone? Either way, I think this tactic could help to avoid situations becoming difficult.
Something, however, that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, was the suggestion from many of the other course attendees, and the trainer, that we should, when dealing with a user who is acting aggressively, tell them that we won’t be spoken to in that way. I realise that in some situations we may need to take such a step to attempt to stop a situation escalating, and also to begin protecting our personal safety, but I do think that this must be used carefully. I often watch the repeats of Airline on weekday evenings (don’t worry, this isn’t going to turn into a post about my terrible television viewing habits!). If you’re not familiar with Airline, it was a reality television programme about airport staff. The check-in desk staff, as you’d probably guess, have to deal with difficult behaviour on a daily basis. Sometimes this is dealt with very well, but at other times I am appalled by the level of customer service offered, and often this is when a member of staff refuses to continue to speak to a customer, because they perceive the customer to have been too rude to them. For me, that is patronising towards the customer, and is only going to cause the situation to escalate (and on Airline it pretty much always does make things worse). Obviously, if the customer has been threatening violence, or throwing personal insults at the member of staff, they should say something about the customer’s behaviour; but there are surely better ways to explain that they need to treat you with respect than to simply refuse to talk to them. I have never asked a user to speak to me more politely, or told them that I won’t continue the exchange if this doesn’t happen, and I have had some fairly hostile words thrown at me (not in my current role, however). Perhaps this is a case of me being too “nice”. Or perhaps in the past I wasn’t confident enough when dealing with such behaviour, and if faced with it now would find myself explaining that I won’t be spoken to in that way. However, I still can’t help feeling that this is one example of how we need to be careful that we maintain a good level of customer service when dealing with difficult behaviour.
I expect that we will experience further incidents of difficult behaviour as we head deeper into a very busy and stressful time of year for students; I’m hoping that the course, and the reflections that it has provoked, will help me to deal successfully with incidents that come my way.